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Friday, December 2, 2022

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Potterthon: Part 1

The Harry Potter films have defined the last decade of cinema. Over eight films, JK Rowling’s stories have dominated the cinematic landscape while becoming that rare thing; a blockbuster series that has not just been well received each time out, but has improved as time and films have gone by. On Friday the final film; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, will open, and in the run up to that I’m going to re-visit and review (or re-review, in the last two cases) all of the previous films, and try to look at the series as one overarching story. I’ll tackle the first seven films in three parts, and on Saturday there will also be a featured review of Deathly Hallows Part 2. Enjoy.

DIR: Chris Columbus
It’s not that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a bad film, just that it feels like a film that is very far away from what the series became, so much so that watching this unashamed kids movie, from the director of Home Alone, with its bogey jokes and slightly schematically told and overexplained plot, is a bit of a shock to the system ten years later. That said, it’s a real charmer, and sets up the world of Harry Potter in a bright and engaging fashion.

Where Columbus really gets it right is in the film’s design. Hogwarts itself is imposing and impressive, dwarfing the films young stars and immersing both them and us in ths magical world. In keeping with the age of the characters and the audience the world at this pint is bright, inviting and fun (and sometimes a little overly cartoony). The characters; Dumbledore, Snape, Hagrid et al, are larger than life, but Columbus makes them feel like a credible part of this world they inhabit, and this really allows you to buy into the reality of Hogwarts as well as engaging with its more fantastical elements. Right down to the tiny details (the fact that every wand is different and designed to suit the character who wields it) the film is beautifully and intricately designed.

Columbus also did sterling work when it comes to casting, and whatever you make of his films it’s worth remembering that the bulk of the main casting was his work, and ingenious it was too, as even here it is hard to imagine anyone else in most of the adult roles. Robbie Coltrane’s bumbling Hagrid (catchphrase here “Oh, I should not have said that”), Maggie Smith’s authoritarian but warm Professor McGonnagal and Alan Rickman’s brilliantly sinister Snape have all become iconic. Richard Harris’ Dumbledore is a slightly different case; a less bombastic and more certainly accented performance than that of Michael Gambon (who took the role after Harris’ death after Chamber of Secrets), his Dumbledore is a more immediately likeable character, one who sets you at ease, but it is hard to identify anyone other than Gambon with the role now.

The kids, all unknowns at this point and all but Daniel Radcliffe without any significant acting experience, largely acquit themselves well, but are all very visibly green here. Radcliffe (who always fit his part like a glove) and Emma Watson, as an energetic Hermione, are best, but Rupert Grint shows a knack for comic relief, and comes into his own during the chess scene. Only Tom Felton lets the side down badly, with a rather wooden turn as Draco Malfoy (a flaw that would take some time to rectify).

For all its charm, Philosopher’s Stone does creak in parts. The opening hour has to be used to set up the characters and the world, and while that still leaves 90 minutes it does take a long while for the plot to kick into high gear. Add to that a somewhat ineffectual villain, and a level based climax that feels a bit computer gamey (complete with some effects that have dated very poorly) and you have a film that ends up being better at setup than it is execution. Still, it looks great, sets up a distinctive world, and is never dull. It’s not a triumph, but it’s a solid start for the franchise.

DIR: Chris Columbus

I’d never especially liked Chamber of Secrets, in fact I had always considered it the weakest of the films. Until yesterday. On this latest rewatch, Chris Columbus’ second crack at the Potter whip played better than it ever had before; revealing a more muscular and more confident film, which even has a few signs of the way the series would evolve (in amongst, it has to be said, a still rather large helping of kid friendly silliness).

Though this, at 154 minutes, is an even longer film than Philosopher’s Stone, it gets going much faster, with the world established thoroughly in the first film, Chamber of Secrets is able to give more time to its plot, which really heralds the first sign of encroaching darkness, by dealing with an attempt to open a secret room in Hogwarts, an attempt which, if successful, will release a monster trained to attack all the non-pureblood students at Hogwarts (including Hermione who, we discover here, has non-magic – muggle – parents). This is also the first sign of the films commentary on social issues, and particularly on racism, which becomes more pronounced as the series goes on.

Though production resumed very quickly after the first film opened, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have visibly and audibly aged, and they all also seem to have found their feet as actors, giving performances that seem a lot more assured than the occasional rabbit in the headlights styling they contributed to the first film. Watson is a little sidelined here, but is charming and does what she can with a small part, and Grint provides solid support, but this is very much Radcliffe’s film, and he carries it assuredly. In the film’s climax – much higher stakes that that of Philosopher’s Stone he battles a giant monster and a form of Voldemort to save little Ginny Weasly (Bonnie Wright, good as ever in a bit part) – a nice setup for what would come some years down the road. But it’s really the character beats that carry that sequence; Harry’s heroism in contrast to the cowardice of defence against the dark arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh, in a breezy and hilarious performance) and Harry’s bravery and willingness to sacrifice are things that have come to define the character, and here Radcliffe sells those aspects of Harry right from the start. You know he’s not going to die of his basilisk bite, but it’s still touching when he tells Ginny to go and find her brother, rather than stay with him in what might be his last moments.

The screenplay works much better this time round too and, aside from a mid film infodump from Maggie Smith, has a better sense of flow between scenes. Despite the length the plot develops at a good pace, and is well told. Characters new and old make strong impressions, and yet more great British actors get in on the act here, with notable contributions from Branagh, Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy (a deliciously clipped performance) and Shirley Henderson, then 35, playing the ghost of 12 year old Hogwarts student Moaning Myrtle. Visually, though it’s nothing like as radical as what would happen on Alfonso Cauron’s watch, Columbus does darken his style here, and especially in the second half of the film the bright primary colours of Philosopher’s Stone are replaced with greys, greens and blacks. Happily Columbus is also playing with a larger budget, and despite being only a year further on, the special effects, and especially the compositing, make a quantum leap from the first film.

It doesn’t all work; the ending is messy, and new character Dobby the House Elf is an irritant, while the early sidelining of Hermione means that the central trio don’t actually get that much time together in this entry. Otherwise though, this is a big step on from the first film and a thrilling, high quality, blockbuster.

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